Tuesday, September 8, 2009

We Have a Winner! Announcing "The Last Chinese Chef" Winner for Cook the Books

OK, Cook the Books Members...We have a winner for this round of our bi-monthly book club selection, the wonderful foodie novel "The Last Chinese Chef" by Nicole Mones. I'll let you read Nicole's email below so you can hear her choice in her own words (Since she is going through the process of making edits to her current book, I promised her not to edit this!) ;-)

I think picking the winner from all your wonderful participants was harder than writing the novel. What a great circle of readers and cooks you have! I have never seen a book group so perfectly attuned to this novel. Then again, it would be hard to cherry-pick readers more ideally suited to resonate with The Last Chinese Chef
Everyone put so much imagination and energy into their dishes and menus! I really hate to have to pick one. Some things were truly creative—like lapsang souchong panna cotta with star anise plums – plus she made trotters, which is brave. And the Beijing wontons in rich broth looked PERFECT, worthy of a Chinese restaurant, the embodiment of xian (the pure natural flavor of a thing) and SO Beijing. The steeped chicken almost made me cry. That is the single most emotionally charged dish in the novel… and also far and away the dish most readers have told me they longed to taste. Maybe it is because of what Deb said, that they wanted to be fed by Sam.
All of you put so much heart into your creations. But ultimately, I had to choose, so…

My runner-up choice was Heather of Girlichef’s Salmon Wrapped in Banana Leaf. It may be odd for me to pick this since ‘fusion’ is traditionally a very un-Chinese concept (historically, in China, all art forms strove for mastery and perfection rather than originality)…but what a great idea! I think it would be wonderful with lotus leaf too… I am definitely going to try this at home. It was thoughtful and highly original in its application of the wrap-and-steam process to another, very non-Chinese ingredient—salmon. Indeed, one of the challenges of making the pork ribs steamed in lotus leaf is that the package forms a sealed container, trapping in not just flavors but any fat contained in the ribs. One wants to prep the ribs to be fairly lean so that there is not too much fat in the finished dish. This must be done by trimming, since parboiling (a good trick before grilling) does not really work in this case. But converting the concept to salmon reverses the equation and turns the challenge into an advantage – salmon, with its healthy fats and tendency to dry out, can only benefit from the extra moisture and ‘containment’ of the package. Good dipping sauce too. Excellent idea!

The great 18th century food critic Yuan Mei wrote that the greatest and most sophisticated dishes were the simplest and most rustic ones… that sublime execution of what is basic constitutes the highest refinement of all. He admired a great dish of tofu more than a platter of imported bird’s nest, though the latter was as costly as pearls. To him, too much of the hautecuisine of his era was about showing off rather than creating great food. He called this ‘eating with your eyes’. You can see this in high-end Eurocentric cuisine today, too – a lot of showing off (witness our era’s increasingly precious, architectural presentations – and often plated for one, too; how un-Chinese!) But his convictions struck me for another reason, too: a great story is also simple, even as it is devilishly difficult to write. It may sound counter-intuitive, but to write a complex story is easier. Simplicity is the final thing… it may be the hardest thing. I hope in my lifetime someday to get there.

So…my choice for the winner is Claudia from Honey From Rock’s Sichuan Tofu with Vegetables. She took plain, simple ingredients and with them achieved a fairly complicated textural dish. She kept trying until she nailed it. And she created a dish that expresses one of the time-honored artistic ploys of Chinese cuisine: it presents as if it is a humble, everyday plate of food but in fact is texturally manipulated to produce a surprise. This jolt of surprise is the beginning of going beyond the senses we usually associate with cooking and eating, to engage the mind with interest and amusement. As I write this I am spending a few days in a house on a cliff above the blue Pacific… Claudia’s recipe makes me want to run up north to the next town, buy some crabs, pick them, and use the shells to make a reduction sauce to try with her spongy tofu technique. Not 30 though, as Sam used… maybe 3… Congratulations, Claudia. You did a terrific job.

All of you did. Your entries were a perfect procession of interesting, mouth-watering recipes and photos. While we’re on the subject, I must single out Deb’s congee even though her entry could not be considered... talk about your homey family meal! To me this recipe/photo more than any other captured the feeling of guanxi and friendship and family so central to the novel. Maybe that’s because there is no meal more intimate than breakfast (which is why breakfast is the book’s last scene.) But I also commend Deb’s entry for making congee seem not just appealing but downright irresistible. Next time I go for dim sun I’m going to pass up all those exotic dumplings and have a bowl.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for reading my novel and even better, for letting it spark your own creative ideas. I am honored… and so glad you all enjoyed it. I cannot promise another book about food, at least not anytime soon; right now I am writing one about music, a historical novel about African-American musicians in the Chinese jazz age (1930s). I hope you will like it, too.  

Thank you!
Congratulations to Claudia of Honey From Rock! As the winner for this round with her Sichuan Tofu with Vegetables, Claudia receives a Cook the Books Winner’s Badge for her blog and will be added to the Cook the Books blogroll.
cook the books award
Thanks to everyone for participating in this round and a special huge thank you to Nicole Mones for devoting so much thought and time to being a part of Cook the Books. 
I will be back in a couple of days to announce our next three book selections so that you can start locating them, and then will be passing the CTB torch on to the host, of our current selection, Peter Mayle's French Lessons: Adventures with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew, Johanna of Food Junkie Not Junk Food.  
Happy Labor Day!

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